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The term religious abuse may refer to

Psychological abuse

One specific meaning of the term "religious abuse" refers to psychological harm or manipulation inflicted on a person by using teachings or doctrines of that person’s religion. This is perpetrated by members of the same or similar faith, and includes the use of a position of authority within the religion over another person to inflict such harm.[2] It is most prevalently directed at children and emotionally vulnerable adults, and motivations behind such abuse vary, but can be either well-intentioned or malicious.[3]

Well meaning instances of such abuse are often motivated by genuine concern that the targeted person will come to physical or spiritual harm should they engage in a certain behavior or question their beliefs. The perpetrator then uses exaggerated, distorted or even false versions of their teachings or their position of authority to instill intense fear and/or shame so that the victim will comply. Maliciously motivated abuse uses the same tactic, but seeks to manipulate the victim into being compliant with the perpetrator’s selfish wishes.

Even well intentioned religious abuse can have long-term psychological consequences. Causing the victim to be intensely fearful can induce that person to develop a specific phobia about the topic they were warned against, or develop a long-lasting depression. They may have an unshakable sense of shame that persists even when they have either grown up or left the church. The person can also be manipulated into avoiding a beneficial action (such as a medical treatment) or to engage in a harmful behavior.[3]

Among congregations

In his book Religious Abuse, pastor Keith Wright describes an example of such abuse. When he was a child, his Christian Scientist mother became very ill, and eventually was convinced to seek medical treatment at an inpatient facility. Members of the Christian Scientist Church went to the treatment center and convinced her to stop treatment and leave, instead to trust prayer and Christian Scientist methods of treatment. She died shortly thereafter. In reality, Christian Science does not actually forbid medical treatments, only that they not be mixed with prayer simultaneously. While the church members may not have had any malicious intent, their misguided interpretation of their religion's teachings to manipulate Wright's mother ultimately resulted in her death.[3]

Against children

Religiously-based psychological abuse of children is a growing area of interest in the psychological and sociological community. It can take the form of using teachings to subjugate children through fear, or imposing heavy indoctrination such that the child is taught only the beliefs and/or points of view of their particular sect (or even just that of their caregivers) and all other perspectives are stifled or kept from them. The beliefs are taught as absolute truth, with no way of ever questioning them. Psychologist Jill Mytton describes this as crushing the child's chance to form a personal morality and belief system, making them utterly reliant on their religious system and/or parents. They never learn to critically reflect on information they receive. Similarly, the use of fear and a judgmental environment (such as the concept of Hell) to control the child can be traumatic.[4]

Religious violence

Religious violence and Extremism (also called Communal violence[5]) is a term that covers all phenomena where religion, in any of its forms, is either the subject or object of individual or collective violent behaviour.[6]

Human sacrifice

The most obvious case of religiously motivated physical abuse is human sacrifice.

Archaeology has uncovered physical evidence of child sacrifice, the ritualistic killing of children in order to please supernatural beings, at several locations.[7] Some of the best attested examples are the diverse rites which were part of the religious practices in Mesoamerica and the Inca Empire.[8][9][10] Alice Miller, Lloyd deMause, psychologist Robert Godwin and other advocates of children's rights have written about pre-Columbian sacrifice within the framework of child abuse.[11][12][13]

Plutarch (ca. 46–120 AD) mentions the practice of the Carthaginian ritual burning of small children, as do Tertullian, Orosius, Diodorus Siculus and Philo. Livy and Polybius do not. The Hebrew Bible also mentions what appears to be child sacrifice practiced at a place called the Tophet ("roasting place") by the Canaanites, and by some Israelites.[14]

Throwing children to the sharks was performed in ancient Hawaii.[15]

Sacrificial victims were often infants. "The slaughtering of newborn babies may be considered a common event in many cultures" including "the Eskimos, the Polynesians, the Egyptians, the Chinese, the Scandinavians, the Africans, the American Indians" and up to recent times "the Australian aboriginals".[16]

Initiation rites

Artificial deformation of the skull predates written history and dates back as far as 45,000 BCE, as evidenced by two Neanderthal skulls found in Shanidar Cave.[17] It usually began just after birth for the next couple of years until the desired shape had been reached. It may have played a key role in Egyptian and Mayan societies.[18]

In China some boys were castrated. Both penis and scrotum were cut.[19] Other ritual actions have been described by anthropologists. Géza Róheim wrote about initiation rituals performed by Australian natives in which adolescent initiates were forced to drink blood.[20] Ritual rapes, in which young virgins are raped, have been part of shamanistic practices.[21]

Persistence of the practices

In some tribes rituals of Papua New Guinea, an elder "picks out a sharp stick of cane and sticks it deep inside the boy's nostrils until he bleeds profusely into the stream of a pool, an act greeted by loud war cries."[22] Afterwards, when boys are initiated into puberty and manhood, they are expected to perform fellatio to the elders. "Not all initiates will participate in this ceremonial homosexual activity, but in about five days later several will have to perform fellatio several times."[22]

Female genital cutting has also been practiced in ritualized contexts in Sub-Saharan Africa; in some regions of the Middle East, and in Southeast Asia.


Ritualistic abuse may also involve children accused, and beaten, for being purported witches in some Central African areas, for example a young niece may be blamed for the illness of a relative.[23]

Psychological explanations

A minority of academics subscribe to a school of thought named psychohistory. They attribute the abusive rituals to the psychopathological projection of the perpetrators, especially of the parents.[11][12]

This "psychohistorical" model makes several claims: that childrearing in tribal societies included child sacrifice or high infanticide rates, incest, body mutilation, child rape and tortures, and that such activities were culturally acceptable.[24][25]

See also


  1. Keith Wright, Religious Abuse, Wood Lake Publishing Inc., 2001
  2. "What Religious Abuse Is About".
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Wright, Keith T. (2001). Religious Abuse: A Pastor Explores the Many Ways Religion Can Hurt As Well As Heal. Kelowna, B.C: Northstone Publishing. ISBN 1-896836-47-X.
  4. "YouTube - Jill Mytton Interview - Richard Dawkins". Retrieved May 26, 2009.
  5. Horowitz, D.L. (2000) The Deadly Ethnic Riot. University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA
  6. Wellman, James; Tokuno, Kyoko (2004). "Is Religious Violence Inevitable?". Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion) 43: 291. doi:10.1111/j.1468-5906.2004.00234.x.
  7. Milner, Larry S. (2000). Hardness of Heart / Hardness of Life: The Stain of Human Infanticide. University Press of America.
  8. Reinhard, Johan; Maria Stenzel (November 1999). "A 6,700 metros niños incas sacrificados quedaron congelados en el tiempo". National Geographic: 36–55.
  9. Discovery Channel The mystery of Inca child sacrifice
  10. de Sahagún, Bernardino (1950-1982). Florentine Codex: History of the Things of New Spain, 12 books and 2 introductory volumes. Utah: University of Utah Press, translated and edited by Arthur J.O. Anderson and Charles Dibble.
  11. 11.0 11.1 deMause, Lloyd (2002). The Emotional Life of Nations. NY, London: Karnak.
  12. 12.0 12.1 Godwin, Robert W. (2004). One cosmos under God. Minnesota: Paragon House.
  13. Miller, Alice (1991). Breaking down the walls of silence. NY: Dutton/Penguin Books. pp. 91.
  14. Brown, Shelby (1991). Late Carthaginian Child Sacrifice and Sacrificial Monuments in their Mediterranean Context. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press.
  15. Davies, Nigel (1981). Human Sacrifice in History and Today. NY: William Morrow & Co.. pp. 192.
  16. Grotstein, James S. (2000). Who is the dreamer who dreams the dream?. NJ: The Analytic Press, Relational Perspectives Book Series Volume 19 edition. pp. 247, 242.
  17. Trinkaus, Erik (April 1982). "Artificial Cranial Deformation in the in Shanidar 1 and 5 Neandertals". Current Anthropology 23 (2): 198–199. doi:10.1086/202808. Retrieved 2008-06-19.
  18. Rousselle, Aline (1983). Porneia: On Desire and the Body in Antiquity. Oxford: Basil Blackwell. pp. 54.
  19. Tompkins, Peter (1963). The Eunuch and the Virgin: A Study of Curious Customs. NY: Bramhall House. pp. 12.
  20. Róheim, Géza (1950). Psychoanalysis and Anthropology. NY: International Universities Press. pp. 76.
  21. Nevill, Drury (1989). The Elements of Shamanism. Longmead: Element. pp. 20.
  22. 22.0 22.1 Herdt, Gilbert (2005). The Sambia: Ritual, Sexuality, and Change in Papua New Guinea (Case Studies in Cultural Anthropology). Longmead: Wadsworth Publishing; 2 edition.
  23. Template:Cite press release
  24. deMause, Lloyd (January 1982). Foundations of Psychohistory. Creative Roots Publishing. pp. 132–146. ISBN 094050801X.
  25. Rascovsky, A. (1995). Filicide: The Murder, Humiliation, Mutilation, Denigration and Abandonment of Children by Parents. NJ: Aronson. pp. 107.

Further reading

  • Massi, Jeri The Lambs Workbook: Recovering from Church Abuse, Clergy Abuse, Spiritual Abuse, and the Legalism of Christian Fundamentalism (2008)
  • O'Brien, Rosaleen Church Abuse, Drugs and E.C.T. (2009)
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